Rick Warren is accepting an invitation to visit North Korea. The Pyongyang government is launching missiles in another attempt to threaten the U.S. and other governments into stabilizing its government. It can be difficult to understand the motives of this secretive nation, whether it is launching missiles into the ocean or inviting Christian leaders to visit the virulently anti-Christian country. Ronald Boyd-MacMillan has visited the country three times, met with Kim Jong Il, and is writer-at-large for Open Doors. He is author of the forthcoming book Faith that Endures: The Essential Guide to the Persecuted Church. CT online associate editor Rob Moll spoke to Boyd-MacMillan from his home in Scotland.
What do you think of Rick Warren's visit to North Korea?
You can travel as religious VIP, but it's a propaganda exercise. I went in as one, and they took me to the Korean Christian Federation, which is this so-called Christian church in Pyongyang, but it's completely set up for the foreigner's benefit. Later, I sent a friend along who wasn't a Christian. I said leave the hotel on a Sunday morning, this was Easter Sunday morning, and see if that's a real functioning church. And he went along on Easter Sunday morning, the place was locked. So there is the Korean Christian Federation, but it's really just a kind of shell church to bring in religious VIPs so that they can be a kind of go-between, between the North Korean regime and the West, because diplomatic channels are very hard for them to use. Billy Graham did it for years. There may be a role for it. I'm sure Rick Warren's well aware that it's primarily a propaganda exercise for the North Koreans to show that they have a free church, which is utter nonsense.
Is there any chance that they might use that to kind of draw out some Christians?
No, the Christians would be too smart. He will never, if he goes to Pyongyang, meet a real Korean Christian. I'm sure he's well aware of that.
What do you think of these missile launchings from North Korea? What are they trying to do?
It's the only way they relate to the outside world, because they have nothing to offer the outside world any more. They just have to keep looking dangerous so they keep getting bought off. And America and some other countries, particularly China, have been playing that game with them, within certain parameters. It's probably smart enough. They're probably calculating that if they keep the regime stable, the North Koreans won't go launch nuclear weapons at Japan or South Korea.
Were you able to meet with any Christians when you were in North Korea?
No. If you go into somewhere like Pyongyang, you're kept away from every native, and there aren't Christians in the capital that would be known. The only way you can meet Christians is maybe to cross the border up in the north and visit some of the house churches, but that's fairly risky for a foreigner.
I understand there's a lot of ministry from South Koreans up in the area.
Yes, because in the winter the river between China and North Korea freezes over, and you can run the gauntlet and cross the river at night. It's risky, though. You can get shot for it. So there's not a lot of travel, but there is some. That's given us a little pipeline of information as well as the ability to get some supplies and scriptures into the small house churches that are still left in North Korea, but they're very small scale.
Before Communism, the North was significantly Christian.
That's true. They talked about Pyongyang as being Asia's Jerusalem. Ruth Graham was raised in a very famous Christian school there. Kim Il Sung changed all that in the 1940s and then he really upped his personality cult in the 1950s after the Korean War.
He was able to wipe out nearly all of the Christian presence?
He was extremely thorough. I would say that was one of the most thorough cleansing of the land of Christians that's ever taken place, certainly in the 20th century. I remember meeting a refugee from North Korea a few years ago, and she talked about how she saw her mother take a little book and put it on the end of a knitting needle and push it deep into the sofa in her house. The girl went to school the next day, and the teachers played this game where they said, "Do your parents have any books that they read perhaps in secret? Let's play a little game, bring it in and we'll have a peek." Of course she dug up this book and it was a New Testament. When she left school that day, she was met by two men who said "you'll never see your parents again." And she never has. They were taken off to the labor camps. She was reassigned to another family. The cleansing was that thorough.
If you go to North Korea, you get an education in biblical language. It's totally biblical except Kim Il Sung is a god. It's a very religious society.
In fact that's where the hope comes from, because it could be that the same thing could happen in North Korea that happened in China. Mao set up this religion, and when he died, the whole population then said, "Who's the true God?"
You said there are a few very small house churches, is that all?
The main information that we have comes because you get a few elderly people that are allowed to cross the border at certain times a year, and they bring us some information. And you have a few refugees. Those are our two main sources of information. We know that there are quite a few house churches in the north of the country that are all organized on family lines. That is, they just have parents and grandparents and that's it. And they keep the children out because they still play those games at school to see if they have Christian parents and so on.
If you become a Christian in North Korea, your first question is Do I flee or do I stay? If you stay, you live a lie. You have to go to the festivals, you have to say grace to Kim Il Sung you have to keep going to the statues and giving offering. You're completely caught up in the worship system. But you mustn't give the impression that your heart is not in it.
But if you flee, then you may die because if you're caught, you will be shot or put in a labor camp. If you decide to stay, your big question is, How do I hide my faith from those whom I love? How do I hide it from my wife? How do I hide it from my mom? How do I hide it from my children? Because, if you're caught, they all go to jail with you. These are dreadful dilemmas when you become a Christian.
How would someone actually become a Christian in North Korea? Is there any way that they could hear of Jesus?
Well there is some witnessing that goes on in family units. And obviously there must still be a core of Christians that came from before the war and have somehow maintained their witnessing in the country, but very quietly and low key.
The best estimates I've heard is there are maybe 5,000 Christians left, but you have estimates up to a half million. That's very wishful, and you can't prove it. We know this because there are quite a few in jail that we have heard of. Some people who have left have escaped from a labor camp and told us what conditions are like. We don't know any Christian that's escaped from a labor camp. That hasn't happened, but there has one woman who escaped from a camp. She was not a Christian at the time but became a Christian later. She told us what life was like for the Christians in the camp. Apparently they are given the worst jobs. They have to live off rats and mice because their rations are never enough for them. They'll work from 6:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. And they're forbidden to look up at the sky. That's their particular punishment. They mustn't look up to God; they must keep their eyes on the ground at all times.
Now, are South Koreans able to do any ministry in the North through food programs or anything like that?
There's some of that but most of the Christian NGOs have pulled out, because you cannot see the aid getting to those who need it. The government was taking the rice and giving it to the army and letting the people starve.
What are some of the challenges of trying to help the persecuted church in places like North Korea?
It's very important to profile extreme suffering. That person who is in jail and is getting beaten up by the police, they need to be released. But the thing is that's not the whole story, and our responsibility is to help the entire persecuted community. And so if we concentrate only on the extremes we're going to miss actually strengthening the majority of the persecuted.
I want Christians to try to take in the whole story, because the big story is really the thrilling thing. It's not about how some Christians survive jail or a beating or are martyred. It's about how God builds the kingdom through these persecuted forces even through people like Mao Zedong. God folds evil into his will. Everybody builds the kingdom whether they know it or not.
Some of the most effective kingdom building occurs by people who think they're destroying it. And that's the big picture I want people to get. Ultimately it will connect you to the whole story of the persecuted and you'll not just think of these extreme cases.
We should be asking what does the persecuted church have to teach us? What's God done that we need to hear about because we're all part of the same body? Also, wherever you are, you should face some persecution because it's a spiritual phenomenon. It's not a legal one. If you look at the human rights debate, it's a legal one, because that's all drawn up by lawyers. But persecution is spiritual and the biblical understanding of it is, when you become a Christian, Christ's enemies become your enemies. And you will suffer some consequences for that. And so there is a hard road to travel as well as a more joyful road. Forget that and paradoxically you forget one of the great sources of joy in the Christian life.
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Faith that Endures: The Essential Guide to the Persecuted Church is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.